Hold Off

Financial Aid Office, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne
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Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne
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An empty classroom became a call center staffed by students after two weeks of training. Now phone wait times are under two minutes.

Each operational unit at a university has its own particular annual cycle: Certain times of the year are devoted to certain tasks; some months are much busier than others. For those in financial aid, summer is crunch time. There are numbers to verify, packages to assemble and distribute, and appeals to handle, along with countless phone calls from freshmen-to-be and their parents. While such information is provided at open houses, mailed to prospective students, and discussed at orientation sessions, families “like the comfort of having someone walk them through the process,” says Judith Cramer, director of financial aid at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

These factors combined to create lengthy wait times for callers with financial aid questions. By August 2009, Cramer says, callers to IPFW were on hold for up to 40 minutes, and financial aid staff were forced to work nights and weekends on processing tasks because their days were spent jockeying phones. “After 20 years in financial aid, at some point every August you say, ‘What if we could actually do the work instead of answering the phones?’” Cramer says. “It’s a constant cycle.”

Corporate America has long utilized call centers to free up staff and handle inquiries less expensively. IPFW did the same thing, but instead of outsourcing to an external firm in another state or even overseas, the university turned to a resource deeply familiar with the institution and the financial aid process?its students.

Officials hired sophomores and juniors to staff a new call center last summer. Paying these employees was the only cost. Phones were loaned to financial aid by telecommunications and hooked up in an empty classroom; IT provided the tools to power a Voice Over IP phone system; student labs across campus offered up computer workstations that weren’t in use because of reduced summer enrollment; and the physical plant staff offered surplus supplies to furnish the room.

Employing students as call-center jockeys reduced hold times for those phoning in and provided a valuable lesson in interdepartmental cooperation.

Other student-facing offices became interested and provided materials to fill up a training manual. Staff received two weeks of training and then was turned loose to answer general calls using the training manual; more complicated questions were routed to the appropriate office.

Quantitatively, the initiative was hugely successful, driving telephone wait times from 40 minutes to under two. The cost of paying students was offset by not having to pay staff overtime for the extra work they used to put in.

And qualitatively? “From all over campus, we heard, ‘Wow, you must be doing something right. The students are just not as stressed as they usually are,’” Cramer says. “And we replied, ‘Neither are we.’”

The student workers also benefited, learning new communications skills as they fielded incoming requests for information and placed outgoing calls seeking paperwork and such.

“At first it was kind of nerve-wracking, because I couldn’t answer my own financial aid questions at the beginning of the summer,” laughs Hillary Corle, an interior design student who is graduating this year. “Once I got the training and got a little hands-on and began making the outbound calls, it really helped break the ice. I felt really proud of myself that I could help someone else feel less stressed about the college experience, because it is scary at first.” -T.D.